ISLAMABAD: A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court requesting the top court to direct the government to implement a specific code of conduct to prohibit defamation of national institutions.

The plea was lodged by a group of lawyers and members of the civil services and civil society on Tuesday through their counsel Haider Waheed. The joint petition pleaded before the court to order the federal government to review existing laws regulating speech and take appropriate measures to prohibit institutional defamation and enact legislation in line with Article 19 of the Constitution.

The petitioners are former police chief Syed Ibn-e-Hussain, Joint Secretary Cabinet (retd) Hassan Mahmood, Punjab International Human Rights Movement leader Raja Sher Bilal, Principal Wings College Chakwal Prof Ibrar Ahmad, and lawyers Qausain Faisal and M Asif.

This is the second such petition. Ear­lier, a petition was moved by Advo­cate Qausain Faisal against the Pakis­tan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leadership over an alleged hate campaign targeting nat­ional institutions like the armed forces, the Supreme Court, and the Ele­c­tion Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Plea recommends legislation for ‘regulation of all media by a unitary regulator’

However, the fresh petition contended that the respondents in the petition should be ordered to obey and uniformly implement Article 19 in letter and spirit without discrimination when discharging their functions and duties. The respondents in the petition are the federation through the information ministry, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), and the ECP.

Legislation for ‘unitary regulator’

The petition requested the apex court to declare that the unequal and disparate regulation of speech on various media — broadcast, digital and print — was discriminatory and violative of articles 19 and 25. It added that the federal government should engage in meaningful consultation with relevant authorities with a view to introducing legislation for “uniform regulation of all media by a unitary regulator”.

The petition regretted that none of the laws regulating speech in Pakistan adequately addressed the menace of “institutional defamation” i.e. where state institutions or their leadership were baselessly accused of wrongdoing, incompetence, or impropriety “without any proof or credible information”.

The petition contended that no adequate, efficacious and expeditious remedy was available presently for the redressal of the institutional defamation. The petition said the state institutions cannot utilise the necessary resources to file civil suits for defamation since it would possibly be hampered by maintainability issues and it would be difficult for such institutions to claim substantial damages.

Likewise, criminal proceedings are subject to a higher standard of proof; penal statutes have a limited scope and are restrictively interpreted, it said, adding that criminal convictions may result in disproportionate punishment in case of minor or first-time violations of law.

According to the plea, even the contempt proceedings, whether initiated by the superior judiciary or ECP, impose a burden on the victim as the maligned institution itself has to first take cognisance of the violations and then spend “precious and scarce time and human resources to defend itself against wrong accusations and punish the offender”.

“…this precious time and resources can otherwise be better utilised by these institutions in performing their constitutional obligations and protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens,” the petition said.

In the absence of an adequate remedy for the redressal of institutional defamation, political statements and media commentary are often used to malign state institutions and the judiciary which essentially results in a media trial which in turn results in the hindrance of the functioning of state institutions, it added.

By not naming specific individuals, under the laws as they stand today, the offender usually escapes liability and punishment regardless of how egregious or irresponsible the statements may be, the petition regretted while emphasising that the state institutions and organisations have a “legitimate need and interest in protecting their reputation, image, prestige, morale, internal cohesion and public confidence”.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2022

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